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Heider Garcia set to become new Dallas County elections chief

Heider Garcia will replace Michael Scarpello, who had led the elections department in Dallas since 2020.

Heider Garcia speaks with ballot board workers inside Tarrant County’s central count station on his final election night on the job, May 6, 2023 (Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune)

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Heider Garcia, a lauded Texas election official who resigned as elections director in Tarrant County under political pressure last spring, is set to become Dallas County’s next elections chief.

Garcia’s first day will be Dec. 20, Dallas County officials said during an election commission meeting Wednesday.

The announcement comes two weeks after Michael Scarpello, who has been Dallas County elections administrator since 2020, submitted his resignation and said he’d be retiring after working in elections in various jurisdictions across the country for more than 20 years. Scarpello’s last day will be Dec. 19.

“I am honored,” Garcia said in a text message Wednesday, after his appointment. “I’ll be very humble in my new role and work really hard to follow in Michael’s footsteps. Dallas deserves the best and I intend to work with that goal in mind.”

Garcia, one of the most respected elections directors in the state during his time in Tarrant, had been Tarrant County’s elections administrator since 2018. Since former President Donald Trump began to make baseless allegations of fraud in connection with the outcome of the 2020 election, Tarrant County — the state’s most populous swing county — has been at the center of unfounded election fraud conspiracies.

Garcia, who previously worked as a software engineer for the voting machine company Smartmatic in Venezuela, also became the subject of allegations from some voter fraud activists and Trump allies who claimed he’d “rigged” the Tarrant election. Fringe activists began posting Garcia’s home address online. He faced harassment and racist death threats.

Instead of withdrawing or dismissing voter fraud activists outright, Garcia did as much as he could to answer any question or suspicion that anyone had about elections and the process in Tarrant. This approach was praised by election officials across the state and nationwide. It also earned him the trust of many members of the public, including some critics.

But he submitted his resignation to Tarrant County officials in April, months after Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare took office. O’Hare, the county’s chief executive, ran on a campaign focused on election integrity and launched a county election integrity task force, despite a lack of evidence of any widespread voter fraud.

In his letter of resignation, Garcia told O’Hare “my formula to ‘administer a quality transparent election’ stands on respect and zero politics; compromising on these values is not an option for me. You made it clear in our last meeting that your formula is different, thus, my decision is to leave.”

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Garcia then worked for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, where he helped develop best practices for election officials across the country as a senior subject matter expert on elections and elections technology. The federal agency oversees the voluntary guidelines many states use to regulate minimum standards for voting machines. The agency also offers assistance to local election officials and acts as a clearinghouse for best practices.

Garcia will take the reins in Dallas County — a Democratic stronghold in Texas with more than 1.4 million registered voters — as the elections department is in the midst of planning for the presidential primary election in March and the 2024 general election. He told Votebeat his approach to the job has not changed since his departure from Tarrant County. Getting to know the county and its voters will be key “to serve them properly,” he said, and added that his principles of providing transparency, accessibility and accountability remain the same.

“Nothing has broken Heider. He is stronger and wiser as a result of his past experiences and that’s another great advantage for Dallas County and its voters,” John Scott, a former Texas secretary of state and former interim Texas attorney general, told Votebeat. Scott, a resident of Tarrant County, described Garcia as the “prototype” of an elections administrator. Scott offered kudos to Dallas County officials “for identifying a great asset and for getting him to take on the task.”

During his tenure in Dallas County, Scarpello led efforts to improve the elections department’s infrastructure, including its processes and procedures, its facilities, technology, communications, and organizational design. To combat bad information about elections, the department added a rumor control section to its website.

Scarpello told Votebeat that as he planned for his retirement, and after he learned Garcia had resigned in Tarrant, he reached out to recruit him to Dallas County.

Garcia has experience running elections in Texas, “as well as the technical knowledge to continue the initiatives we’ve implemented to modernize the Dallas County Elections Department.” Scarpello said in an email. “I look forward to working with him over the next several weeks to assure a smooth transition.”

Garcia said he wants to keep Scarpello’s momentum going. “Once I get my feet wet, I do have some proposals for boosting transparency with election records,” he said.

The Dallas County election commission — which is made up Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins, a Democrat; the chairs of both county political parties, GOP chair Jennifer Stoddard-Hajdu and Democratic Party chair Kardal Coleman; the county’s tax assessor; and the county clerk — was responsible for making the hire and has been reviewing resumes for about a week. Four election commissioners voted to appoint Garcia, with only Stoddard-Hajdu in opposition.

The county received 10 applications for the job. Garcia and Robert Heard — the county’s elections department human resources director, who was previously the department’s assistant elections administrator — were the two finalists. Out of the applicants, Garcia and Heard were the only ones who met the qualifications for the job, which included past experience as elections administrator or deputy elections director in a county of more than 100,000 residents, said Bob Wilson, the county’s human resources director. Election commission members interviewed them Wednesday during executive session before appointing Garcia.

In an emailed statement, Jenkins, the Dallas County judge, said the commission chose Garacia because he “has a proven track record of running excellent elections in several places, most recently Tarrant County.”

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“Elected officials of both parties and former Texas Secretaries of State praise Heider for his thoroughness, fairness, and leadership abilities,” Jenkins added.

Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org

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